Writing Indians Out of Existence with Jean O’Brien

Firsting and Lasting argues that local histories became a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, Jean M. O’Brien explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness. Click here for the 61-minute YouTube video of her Zoom presentation sponsored by the Vermont Historical Association on January 27, 2022.

(Above, left) O’Brien begins her presentation by showing a slide of Sachem’s Rock in the heart of an area where much Native activity took place, and the site said to have been the site where tribal councils were held. (Above, right) Presenter Jean M. O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) is Distinguished McKnight University Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.

O’Brien illustrates her observation that 19th century publications included illustrations of (above, left) “The First Washing Day at Cape Cod” and (above, right) “The First Thanksgiving” as if Indigenous people never washed or never gave thanks.

O’Brien includes the Massasoit Spring in Warren, RI, and the portrait of Martha Simons of New Bedford as examples of providing evidence of the disappearance of Indigenous people from the New England landscape.

In the proposed covers of O’Brien’s book, the notion of the disappearance of Indigenous people is shown in an altered picture of Black William selling Nahant to Thomas Dexter for a suit of clothes in 1630.